This is the second in a two-part series. You can read the first story here.
Jaime White and his family were on track to be artisanal producers, raising sheep, pigs and chickens. Then he had an idea. Why not turn their community of Dawson Creek, B.C. into a waste-free town, lower their own feed bill and support neighbours by diverting unsold groceries to charities and livestock producers?
While they still run a small farm, now a big part of the day is often spent negotiating new store contracts for Loop Resource and managing the program. Farmers and charities such as food banks pick up 150 loads of surplus food each day from participating grocery stores across Canada. There are many moving parts, and it’s stressful, White acknowledges.
“But the bottom line for us at this point is that we’re really passionate about the results of this. This is supporting small farms at a really critical time.”
Part of that work is around managing the risks of feeding surplus groceries to livestock, a practice that if done wrong risks introducing a serious disease to Canadian herds. That means educating participating farmers, following up on any issues and checking in with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to make sure the program is on track.
Beyond that extension component, White has also built safeguards into the program to reduce risk and to spot emerging problems quickly.
Store employees separate food by department to avoid contaminating the loads, White says. But one possible risk is that a store employee from the deli department, for example, might dump deli meat into the produce bin, posing a risk to livestock that would eat that produce. To prevent that problem, each department has a Loop bin within its own area in the store.
“They’re actually physically maintaining custody of it in their own department,” says White.
Participating farmers must remove and sort packaging from food items in the loads. A common question during farmer training is why Loop doesn’t ask stores to remove all plastic from the food before farmers pick it up.
“Well, the reason is the plastic helps identify what’s within the product,” says White. Retaining the packaging allows producers to read ingredients before feeding an item to livestock.
Catching problems early
Loop also has a real-time reporting system that allows producers and charities to send photos and notes about any issues, big or small, with loads, White says.
“We don’t just report majors. We report all the little ones because the little ones are indicators that we have a new person in the store that needs some retraining or we might have someone who is disgruntled and trying to do something weird.”
White says that out of 150 loads picked up per day, they have a handful of incidents each year. They had one case where a store employee resented homeless people and sabotaged loads destined for charity. Over two days, the employee was “just generally causing mayhem,” says White, by not keeping items refrigerated and swapping things around. However, the farm and charity noticed the loads were unusual both those days and sent photos and descriptions through Loop’s reporting system.
A more common issue is an employee dropping broken glass into the top of the produce bin. “That’s immediately obvious to us that this is no longer suitable for feed. This box is pulled from the distribution and is put in the garbage instead.”
Although Loop strives to be a “zero-waste organization,” directing food to its “highest and best use, highest and best use in the case of a glass or chemical contamination is destruction,” says White.
People familiar with an industrial compost system might think Loop loads are similar, with food sitting several days before being fed. Feed regulations do state that contaminated or degraded food is not to be fed to livestock, and food should have nutritional value.
Loop loads are picked up the same day they’re set aside, White says. “In fact, our biggest concern in trained farms isn’t that they’re going to take a bunch of terribly degraded product and feed it to their livestock. The biggest fear is that someone’s going to take the products and put it in their fridge and eat it themselves,” he says.
Training covers why that food isn’t safe for human consumption — often it comes down to simply not knowing why the store is getting rid of it, he says.
What types of farms are a fit for Loop?
While there are some exceptions, Loop is generally a better fit for smaller operations. White grew up in Smithers, B.C., which is cattle and forage country, and helped out on his grandparents’ mixed farm near Brandon, Man., every summer. While a cattle operation with 150 head isn’t considered large in most parts of Western Canada, it’s large enough that it would likely see declining benefits in the Loop program.
For example, in the case of a very large cattle operation, White says he couldn’t connect them with a big enough store to make a dent in the feed bill.
Loop tends to work with small farms that are just on the verge of producing enough to sell into the system. Often they are producing food for themselves and just thinking about scaling up and finding a competitive market niche. Feed is their single largest cost, and scaling up would mean their feed costs would surpass their off-farm earnings.
“And that’s where Loop is a really nice dovetail fit.”
For example, Loop has a farmer from the Regina, Sask., area who started farming at age 18, but didn’t have money to buy land, says White. He started by borrowing 10 acres from a helpful neighbour to raise hogs. White says the young farmer had no room to make mistakes, given his production costs. But Loop reduced his feed bill and restored a healthy profit margin. The pigs were healthier, and he was able to keep a boar and sow to produce his own piglets. The program gave him more room to make mistakes and learn, White says, and reinvest in his operation.
The program does include a few livestock operations that break the small-farm mold. White’s neighbour runs a 180-head beef operation, along with pigs and chickens. He supplements beef rations with Loop food and also uses Loop treats to train calves to be handled. Another Alberta family uses Loop to call in their cattle from the community pasture.
While White will continue focusing on supporting smaller farms with Loop, he also acknowledges the benefits of other systems that divert usable food to larger operations – for example, feeding French fries to feedlot cattle. Big or small, all farms have roles to play.
“One of the stories that needs to be told here is how farming is the ultimate recycling engine. You want to fix the environment? Small farms. You want to fix our eco-industrial food problem? Larger farms.”